True enough. But there's a new religion on the block now, one that fits the current zeitgeist nicely. It's Islam.
Islam is the third-largest and fastest growing religious community in the United States. This is not just because of immigration. More than 50% of America's six million Muslims were born here. Statistics like these imply some basic agreement between core American values and the beliefs that Muslims hold. Americans who make the effort to look beyond popular stereotypes to learn the truth of Islam are surprised to find themselves on familiar ground.
Is America a Muslim nation? Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes.
Islam is monotheistic. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians. They also revere the same prophets as Judaism and Christianity, from Abraham, the first monotheist, to Moses, the law giver and messenger of God, to Jesus--not leaving out Noah, Job, or Isaiah along the way. The concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition only came to the fore in the 1940s in America. Now, as a nation, we may be transcending it, turning to a more inclusive "Abrahamic" view.
In January, President Bush grouped mosques with churches and synagogues in his inaugural address. A few days later, when he posed for photographers at a meeting of several dozen religious figures, the Shi'ite imam Muhammad Qazwini, of Orange County, Calif., stood directly behind Bush's chair like a presiding angel, dressed in the robes and turban of his south Iraqi youth.
Islam is democratic in spirit. Islam advocates the right to vote and educate yourself and pursue a profession. The Qur'an, on which Islamic law is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus. In mosques, there is no particular priestly hierarchy. With Islam, each individual is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul. Everyone stands equal before God.
Islam contains an attractive mystical tradition. Mysticism is grounded in the individual search for God. Where better to do that than in America, land of individualists and spiritual seekers? And who might better benefit than Americans from the centuries-long tradition of teachers and students that characterize Islam. Surprising as it may seem, America's best-selling poet du jour is a Muslim mystic named Rumi, the 800-year-old Persian bard and founder of the Mevlevi Path, known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes. Even book packagers are now rushing him into print to meet and profit from mainstream demand for this visionary. Translators as various as Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and Kabir and Camille Helminski have produced dozens of books of Rumi's verse and have only begun to bring his enormous output before the English-speaking world. This is a concrete poetry of ecstasy, where physical reality and the longing for God are joined by flashes of metaphor and insight that continue to speak across the centuries.
Islam is egalitarian. From New York to California, the only houses of worship that are routinely integrated today are the approximately 4,000 Muslim mosques. That is because Islam is predicated on a level playing field, especially when it comes to standing before God. The Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, "under God") and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (all people are "created equal") express themes that are also basic to Islam.
Islam is often viewed as an aggressive faith because of the concept of jihad, but this is actually a misunderstood term. Because Muslims believe that God wants a just world, they tend to be activists, and they emphasize that people are equal before God. These are two reasons why African Americans have been drawn in such large numbers to Islam. They now comprise about one-third of all Muslims in America.
Meanwhile, this egalitarian streak also plays itself out in relations between the sexes. Muhammad, Islam's prophet, actually was a reformer in his day. Following the Qur'an, he limited the number of wives a man could have and strongly recommended against polygamy. The Qur'an laid out a set of marriage laws that guarantees married women their family names, their own possessions and capital, the right to agree upon whom they will marry, and the right to initiate divorce. In Islam's early period, women were professionals and property owners, as increasingly they are today. None of this may seem obvious to most Americans because of cultural overlays that at times make Islam appear to be a repressive faith toward women--but if you look more closely, you can see the egalitarian streak preserved in the Qur'an finding expression in contemporary terms. In today's Iran, for example, more women than men attend university, and in recent local elections there, 5,000 women ran for public office.
Islam shares America's new interest in food purity and diet. Muslims conduct a monthlong fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a practice that many Americans admire and even seek to emulate. I happened to spend quite a bit of time with a non-Muslim friend during Ramadan this year. After a month of being exposed to a practice that brings some annual control to human consumption, my friend let me know, in January, that he was "doing a little Ramadan" of his own. I asked what he meant. "Well, I'm not drinking anything or smoking anything for at least a month, and I'm going off coffee." Given this friend's normal intake of coffee, I could not believe my ears.
Muslims also observe dietary laws that restrict the kind of meat they can eat. These laws require that the permitted, or halal, meat is prepared in a manner that emphasizes cleanliness and a humane treatment of animals. These laws ride on the same trends that have made organic foods so popular.